Showing posts with label biography. Show all posts
Showing posts with label biography. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Song of my Life by Carolyn Brown

Title: Song of my Life
Author: Carolyn Brown
Publisher: University Press of Missippi
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review.

Continuing with what seems to have become a minor theme on my blog this month, this is a short, but fact-filled and moving biography of an under-appreciated and not widely known African-American.

Margaret Walker was a poet and writer who had to struggle throughout her life in the USA to get herself an education, to be accepted, and to pursue her career and her dreams. Even when she had earned herself a doctorate and begun her writing and teaching career at a university she still had to deal with racism which was only exacerbated by the fact that not only was she a black person in a white person's world, she was also a woman in a man's world.

As if this wasn't bad enough, when Alex Haley published his run-away best-selling book Roots, and Walker sued him for plagiarism, citing instance after instance of examples where she argued that he had lifted material from her writing (her 1966 novel Jubilee), including the name "Chicken George", she lost the case, although 1978, Harold Courlanderwho filed a similar suit, won his.

As this biography makes disturbingly clear, Walker Born in Birmingham, Alabama, navigated a cash-strapped and racism plagued childhood, moving homes several times as her father, a Methodist minister, tried to stay employed. She attended school and college in New Orleans still struggling to make ends meet. In 1935, she got a BA at Northwestern University, following it with a master's from the University of Iowa (in creative writing) in 1942. The following year she married Firnist Alexander, had four children with him, and remained married to this war veteran until his death.

She was a professor of literature for thirty years at what's now known as Jackson State University, and continued to write - and win accolades - throughout her life. Her works include an award-winning poetry collection titled For My People, and Jubilee, a remarkable novel about slavery, before, during, and after the Civil War and based upon the life of her own great-grandmother.

This biography tells her story - a story that needs to be told - and tells it well. It will make you feel uncomfortable, but it will make you feel triumphant as you read through to the success and praise which Margaret Walker earned after her struggle, throughout which she maintained her poise and equanimity. Her success inspired a whole generation of black writers to take up her baton and continue moving forwards. I recommend this book.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Joss Whedon by Amy Pascale

Title: Joss Whedon
Author: Amy Pascale (no website found)
Publisher: Chicago Review
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review.

I am not one of the Joss Whedon groupies. I respect his abilities, but while I loved the Buffy movie, I detested the TV series. I liked Dollhouse and Firefly, and I loved the Avengers movie, so you could say I'm a fan, but definitely not a fanboi. That's how you know that when I recommend this biography, I'm not gushing mindlessly, but considering it rather more dispassionately than many reviewers might.

The biography (which contains no photographs - not in the advance review copy anyway) covers Whedon's life from youth to present (at least present as defined by when the book was written), and it's written by someone who is definitely a fangirl, so yes there's some gushing, but it's kept in check, and it never overrides the facts, of which there are many from a diversity of sources.

These sources include writers and producers who worked with Whedon on his TV shows, such as David Grunewald and Tim Mi near, actors from those shows, such as Anthony Head and Sarah Geller, and actors from The Avengers, along with a host of others. The list occupies a whole paragraph in the acknowledgments, and features Whedon's wife, Kai Cole, and of course, Whedon himself.

The biography makes very good reading, and fills in a lot of details surrounding his rise to success, and the struggle he had to get there. I'm not someone who really cares that much about the details of his personal life (although this book has plenty of those). As a writer myself, I'm much more interested in his writing career. For me the mechanics of how he goes about this is what was the most engrossing to me: where he came up with his ideas, how he got them into a format that could be filmed, how he made it happen on the small and the large screen.

I would have happily read much, much more about that than this book contains, but then it would probably have been really boring to other readers, so be comforted that Pascale strikes a nice balance between the personal and the professional in telling this story. You will learn about his imperfect childhood, his stint in Britain, his school experiences, his choice between acting and writing when he was choosing a college, and how he chose Wesleyan.

From there on out it seems like his story doesn't need telling, but if you think that, then there's still a lot you'll miss. Pascale talks in detail about his work in TV and the struggles he had there in trying to find a balance he could live with between his vision, and the rather short-sighted if not bizarre demands of Fox TV. The details cover Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and Agents of Shield. His movies are also covered, including the original Buffy movie, Toy Story, The Cabin in the Woods, Much Ado about Nothing, The Avengers, and a mention of the Avengers sequel, the Age of Ultron, the notes for which were begun over a pint and some fish and chips in a Brit pub.

All in all this turned out to be everything I wanted when I picked it up, and I was completely satisfied with it!

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Title: Steve Jobs
Author: Walter Isaacson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Rating: WORTHY!

Some people have held up Steve Jobs as a good reason why abortion is a bad thing (Jobs was adopted). Others have held him up as a hero, a visionary, the guru of cool, but I don't hold him up as anything but a regrettable example of a human being. Steve Jobs was not a nice person. He was childish, petulant, obsessive, given to tantrums, downright mean, and prone to crying when he didn't get his way. He abused people cruelly, not physically, but emotionally, and he followed utterly bizarre diets which could change completely on a whim, the previous diet being dismissed as though it were someone else's dumb idea. He refused to acknowledge parentage to his first child (and threw out her mom) until he was taken to court over it, and even then continued to deny it for many years. He probably contributed to his own early death by refusing to acknowledge how sick he was for many months, resorting to ridiculous and utterly useless New Age 'cures' which did nothing but let his cancer spread.

So why do I care about his biography? Well, I read this for the same reason I read Joss Whedon's: because I was interested not so much in the person per se, as in the mechanics of the thing. How did he get his ideas? How did he bring them to fruition? In Job's case, how did these products get conceived, put together, and brought to market?

The bottom line was that Steve Jobs was just as much an incompetent blunderer as he was a genius of design and marketing. He just happened to get it right more than he screwed it up, and even when he got it right, he screwed it up in ways not so obvious to the consumer - like producing under-powered computers that were hard, if not impossible to upgrade.

So while he did usher in the original Mac, his arrival on the Mac team was a punishment, not the result of anyone's inspiration! He did contribute materially to its design, but the original interface idea was not his; it was that of the Xerox corporation which didn't have any idea what it had. So after taking their idea and making it work, and making it cool, Jobs then had the nerve to go after Microsoft for "stealing his idea" when they came out with Windows! I'm no fan of Microsoft. I agree with Jobs that they're amateurs and kings of kludge, especially when compared with Apple.

Jobs did resurrect Apple after it misstepped badly with the Lisa (named after the very daughter he refused to acknowledge), and the Apple 3, and Jobs was tossed out of the corporation he founded. His incompetence was highlighted starkly when he was finally on his own at this time and able to give give free reign to his whims. He tried to bring the "Next" computer to the world and again larded it with unnecessary design expenses, and underpowered it, and hobbled it with poor specs and over-pricing.

'Next' folded quickly, but fortunately for jobs, he had by then grown an interest in another computer company, one named Pixar. Despite his dumb-ass idea that they could open stores and sell the Pixar animation machine for $30,000 each, he was smart enough to appreciate the value of the interest amongst employees in developing animated movies, and he was a really strong advocate for Pixar in its battles over its partnership with Disney, before Disney simply up and bought the outfit completely.

The Next operating system (Next Step) did come back with him to Apple when he was 'rehired' and ended up taking the reins (or the reign), but it was a while before it was integrated into Apple's operating system. His first really solid move was to push out the iMac, which was the first step in Apple's resurgence. He quickly built on this with the iPod, then the iPhone, then the iPad.

None of these ideas were original with him either. The iPod was a better version of music players already entering the market, but its sales were definitely bolstered by Job's iTunes, which was, in the form we know it, his idea. The iPhone was a result of development of the iPad, which was an idea he first heard from a Microsoft employee. The iPad was slow to the market for a variety of reasons, but the iPhone used its technology and came out first. When it finally arrived, the iPad was a huge success despite popular media skepticism and it did incorporate some of Jobs's ideas from his Next days - where a computer would come complete with a variety of useful apps, but it wasn't until iPad 2 that this vision began to be properly realized.

So, I skipped a lot of this book because it wasn't interesting to me, but I read with eager interest all of the product development and launch material. The book is very well researched, deeply informative, contains photographs, and is well-written, with lots of input from those who knew Jobs personally and those who worked with and for him. I recommend it.